Florida-The Sunshine State

Florida

I go to Florida sometimes for vacation. I actually really like Florida. It’s a weird place, it’s surreal. It’s so close, but you feel like you’re in another world or on an island. – Jemima Kirke, actress

I love Florida! I could easily see myself becoming a snowbird, leaving the cold bleakness of the long Maine winters just after Christmas and coming back in June to enjoy the beautiful Maine summer. It would be the best of both worlds. I first went to Florida when I was sixteen and I have been enthralled with it ever since.

I will never forget my first sight of the ocean at Panama City. As I stood with warm sand threading between my bare toes I looked in wonder across the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and I knew I would never again see anything so magnificent. There are times when my heart longs for the sea and I can hear its siren song calling me no matter where I am. When I would return home on R&R from Afghanistan I usually flew into Portland, Maine and my family knew that the first thing I needed to do was to go to the sea. After forced confinement in high walls, razor wire and armed guards in a hostile war zone for months on end, only the expanse of the sea could bring back to me a sense of freedom.

Florida is the southernmost state in America but it is not the South. It is a place that transcends description in an ever changing population punctuated with visitors from all over the world, attracted by the lure of its tropical beauty and climate. I lived in Orlando after high school for almost two years. At that time Orlando was a medium sized town with a small town feel. Disney World was new and still small enough to visit and see everything in one day. One of my favorite memories is walking through orange groves as the hot sun released the fragrant perfume of the orange blossoms.

Florida has given us Pat Boone, Fay Dunaway, Butterfly McQueen and Sidney Poitier.  The Florida Keys bring to mind visions of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” and to visit Key West is to imagine seeing the husky frame of Ernest Hemingway making his restless way home after a late night of drinking at Sloppy Joe’s bar.

Florida counts among its iconic wildlife the American alligator, crocodiles, black bear, manatees and the Florida panther. Bottlenose dolphins can be seen jumping and leaping out of the water as they swim alongside boats and often whales and sharks can be spotted in the clear blue waters. The air is joyous with the sounds of falcons, eagles, pelicans, kites and a myriad of songbirds. For me the memory of lying on Florida’s beaches is synonymous with the raucous calls of sea gulls as they circle overhead bickering over scraps of food.

Undoubtedly, Florida is the premier state for tourism. From Disney World, the 48 square mile kingdom of fantasy that attracts over 26 million visitors a year, to the small-scale alligator farms and rattlesnake ranches that line the rural roads, visitors are never far from a new adventure. Beautiful Silver Springs where the glass-bottom boat was invented, became famous when a series of Tarzan movies were filmed there as well as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the popular television program “Sea Hunt”.

Many people are drawn to the weather in Florida with its mild winters but it can also be a cruel punisher when tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the skies. It is known as the lightning capital of the United States. One of my favorite places to visit is Naples, Florida. I stay at a small place called the Lemon Tree Inn and I always get a room that has a screened-in porch. On most evenings a brief, but furious thunderstorm will light up the sky and shake the ground as the deep rolling booms fade off into the distance. I love to sit on the porch and read, enjoying the raw power of the storm, breathing the fresh ionized air and feeling the mist of the rain as it penetrates the screen wire, dotting my bare feet with coolness in the humid night. As the last clap of thunder fades into the distance and the last of the rain drips from the eaves, small brown lizards emerge and run up the screens of the porch. They stop and look at me curiously, turning their heads to the side, smelling me with flicks of their little pointed tongues before they scurry busily away.

Florida heals me like no other place can. When I cannot find my way, spending time in Florida aligns my compass point in the right direction and I return home refreshed and filled with a sense of peace. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there and in a corner of my consciousness I can hear the breeze swishing through the palm trees and feel the sun warming my skin as I gaze into the endless sea that is whispering, “Come home. Come home.”

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